Spectators can get lesson in law as they brave weather

Many don't seem to grasp difference between impeachment and trial

Trial In The Senate

January 15, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Regardless of their political persuasion, what part of the country they hail from, or what their interest was in seeing a snippet of the Senate impeachment trial live, some of the Americans who lined up outside the Capitol yesterday had something in common: They seemed to forget that President Clinton has already been impeached.

"He should be impeached," said 32-year-old Andy Hendricks, referring to the president, who was impeached by the House of Representatives nearly four weeks ago.

The Senate's role is to decide whether to convict Clinton and remove him from office.

Hendricks, of Arlington, Va., who said he recently passed the state certification exam to become a high school history teacher, was one of about 200 people in a line that snaked from the Capitol toward First Street.

Small groups of them were rounded up by Capitol Police and ushered in to watch their allotted 15 minutes of the Senate proceedings.

"I'm interested in seeing Henry Hyde," Hendricks said, listening to C-SPAN Radio on a portable radio for updates on happenings inside. "Ever since the House Judiciary hearing, I've developed a deep respect for him."

If anyone needed a good brush-up on constitutional fact and the process of impeachment, one was available on-site.

Across from the gift shop, on the crypt level of the Capitol, sat Elizabeth Shahan of Gaithersburg, who volunteers for the U.S. Capitol Historical Society and stands ready to answer questions about the building, the District of Columbia or the workings of the federal government.

"He's been impeached!" Shahan said pleadingly when she learned of the confusion among some folks in line.

Shahan, who was paging through a newspaper, unnoticed, as chattering tourists passed by, said the most frequent question she receives is, "Where's the bathroom?"

"I can answer questions of substance," she insisted.

Jesus stood sentry on the Capitol steps -- at least a life-sized model of him, stuck there in the morning by 70-year-old Rita Warren, a spark plug of a woman who's been protesting full time in Washington for 19 years.

Warren says she believes Clinton has done more than break American law.

"This is not man's law; perjury is God's law," said Warren, a native of Naples, Italy, her head peeking through the artificial fur on her coat that was as thick as her Italian accent. "And we're not going to ignore the adultery either."

Warren predicted a Senate conviction.

"He's going to have to vacate," she said, smiling impishly and wiggling her two fingers as if they represented Clinton's legs strolling out of town.

Her set-up on the Capitol steps -- which included Jesus, his sheep, the Ten Commandments, and a photo of Clinton with a Hitler-style mustache sketched above his upper lip -- was hard to ignore. From a boom-box encased in a trash bag to protect it from the rain, she was blaring the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," interspersed with recorded statements like, "For the sake of the American people and their children, step down and let America regain her honor and dignity."

The weather that greeted the streams of onlookers was frightful.

"The temperature has dropped 5 to 10 degrees," a shivering Jim Tice of Phoenix said as he sipped the last drop of hot water from a souvenir Senate mug and danced in circles to stay warm.

Nature, it seemed, was as publicly undecided as some members of the Senate. A soupy mist soaked those in line just before 1 p.m. By mid-afternoon, temperatures plummeted, and everything froze, making puddles slippery, the hair on people's heads crusty, and ice-covered eyeglasses hard to see through.

For one would-be spectator, Marisa Urgo, 28, of Silver Spring, it was all she had hoped for.

"If the weather was nice, the lines would be longer," she said.

For the record, Urgo said Clinton "should not be impeached."

One saga in the trial has been who was to get hold of the precious few tickets given to each senator to distribute as he or she wishes. Each office receives four -- one permanent seat in the gallery, which many spouses are using, and three rotating seats, which allow daylong access to the gallery but reserve no particular seat.

All are better than the public gallery seats, which restrict access to 15 minutes.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, has distributed all four tickets to staff members.

Maryland's other senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Democrat, has decided to give her three temporary passes each day to constituents on a first-come, first-served basis. The waiting list for those passes, with more than 200 names, is now closed.

The senator's one permanent pass went yesterday to an aide who has been assigned to help Mikulski analyze the legal arguments made by the two sides.

Mikulski's office declined to ask any of the recipients whether they would like to speak about their experiences inside the gallery.

"They don't call us to become media stars," said Mona Miller, Mikulski's communications director.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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